Written by Travel Writer Cate Brubaker from International Desserts Blog
When my husband and I visited Dubrovnik, we set aside a day for exploring nearby Montenegro by car. It was our first time to both Croatia and Montenegro and our Dubrovnik – Kotor – Cetinje – Dubrovnik day trip turned out to be one of our favorites of the entire trip!
You can take a day trip to Montenegro on a tour, go by bus or book a private transfer with a hired driver – but if you have access to a rental car, I highly recommend self-driving into the Montenegrin interior.
Most day-trippers only visit the Bay of Kotor, which is a great option if you prefer spending more time exploring on foot than by car.
But if you’re interested in going beyond Kotor, give this day trip a try! We covered a lot of ground, and while it’s very doable in one long day, if you’ve got two or even three days for this trip, that’s even better.
Day Trip Part 1: Dubrovnik to the Bay of Kotor
Our day trip started out bright and early at 7 am with a 20-minute uphill hike to retrieve our rental car from the public garage that’s just outside the old city wall.
We rented our car at the Sarajevo airport at the beginning of our trip and had no problems taking it into Croatia and Montenegro. If you only want a car for one or
If you only want a car for a one or two day trip while in Dubrovnik, you can easily rent one at the nearby airport, which is conveniently on the way to Montenegro. Just make sure that you have the necessary insurance and your rental agreement papers in the car.
I’ve heard that some people have had to pay for a “green insurance card” but, both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro are included in the green card system that your car rental insurance company supply for travel within Croatia. Some rental car companies do try to charge you extra, but it is not required. You can read more about it on the website of the National Green Card Bureau to avoid being scammed into paying extra.
We headed south towards the Croatia-Montenegro border, pulling over several times to admire the gorgeous view of old town Dubrovnik and Lokrum Island Nature Reserve.
We just couldn’t get enough of those views!
Little did we know that even more spectacular vistas were in store.
The drive to the border was quick and easy – just head south on Highway 8 towards the airport and then follow the signs towards Montenegro. While the roads were good and traffic was sparse, we were a bit disappointed that we didn’t see any of the wild boars that the road signs warned about!
I’d read that the Debeli Brijeg border can get backed up and that during peak season it can takes two to three hours to cross. Fortunately, we crossed in an easy 10 minutes. I’m not sure if it was because we were there early in the day (around 8am) or if early May just isn’t that busy.
We were simply waved through at the Croatian border but at the Montenegrin border, we did have to stop and show our passports (which they stamped – yay!) and our rental agreement paperwork.
Since we needed the entire day for this trip, it was a relief to get through the border so quickly. If you’re in Dubrovnik during peak season be sure to hit the road as early as possible and avoid the weekends.
Editors Note: Border delays can stretch into the hours during peak in the summer months. Allow several allows to cross, just in case.
Once in Montenegro we followed the E65/E80 around the Bay of Kotor. It took about an hour to reach Kotor from the border and, wow, what a beautiful drive!
The two-lane road meant slow-going in a few places but we didn’t mind because it gave us more time to gaze at the gorgeous bay, the fjord-like mountains, and the small villages we passed through.
We thought about stopping in Perast and taking a boat out to see the Our Lady of the Rocks Island church in the middle of the bay but decided to skip it in favor of having more time in Kotor.
Day Trip Part 2: Historic Kotor
We reached Kotor shortly after leaving Perast, and quickly found an open parking lot right on the bay next to a huge cruise ship. Parking was only a couple Euros per hour and the lot was conveniently located across the street from the main Kotor city gate.
Our first task was to find an ATM, since Montenegro uses Euros, unlike Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Fortunately, there were several to choose from and we had no problem withdrawing cash for the day.
We stopped at a pleasant outdoor cafe for a pick-me-up coffee and to look at a city map. It was a sunny, hot day and we so enjoyed sitting the breeze shade that we didn’t want to leave. But since Kotor is a popular cruise ship stop and can fill up quickly by late morning, we didn’t linger once we’d finished out lattes.
In total, we spent about three hours exploring Kotor.
We strolled the small side streets, visited several beautiful churches, and hiked a section of the trails above the town wall. It was such a beautiful day that we wanted to spend most of our time outside, so we skipped museums and shopping.
We were happy with the time we spent getting a taste of Kotor, just playing it by ear with no set agenda. Our goal was simply to get a feel for the town, rather than take in a laundry list of sights. If you have more than a few hours in Kotor, here are some things to do and see:
- Cathedral of Saint Tryphon
- St. Nikola church
- Church of St. Luke (and square)
- Maritime museum
- Hike up to the castle of San Giovanni
Before we left Kotor, we picked up sandwiches, drinks, and a delicious chocolate mousse from a bakery. It’s a good thing we did because we didn’t encounter many quick and easy food options for the next couple hours!
Day Trip Part 3: A White-Knuckle Drive
While we enjoyed a few hours in Kotor, we were eager to head towards the interior of Montenegro. Most tourists from Dubrovnik stick to Perast, Kotor, and Budva but if you’re looking for something a little different, head up the mountain towards Cetinje in the interior.
Just out of Kotor we started up the P1 – a barely two-lane mountain road with 25 switchbacks. The road was so narrow that anytime a bus or large truck rounded the corner, we had to back up to the nearest pullout to let them pass.
Locals drive this serpentine road all the time and seem to be comfortable speeding around the hairpin turns but we were decidedly not!
While the drive up the mountain was mildly terrifying, the scenery was absolutely breathtaking.
We stopped at nearly every switchback from 18-25 to take photos (the last one has the best view). Each time we stopped we didn’t think the view could get any better…and then it did. We just couldn’t get over how beautiful the Bay of Kotor is from that elevation, and how you could see all the way to the sparkling Adriatic sea.
Having gained so much elevation, the climate and scenery at the top of the mountain was different from what we’d just seen in Kotor – more rugged, rocky, and a bit chillier.
The houses and buildings looked less Mediterranean than Kotor and we saw a lot more Cyrillic lettering. We also saw far fewer tourists – and people in general.
Once we reached the final switchback, we headed away from the bay towards Njeguši. We considered visiting Lovćen National Park but we opted to continue our route towards Cetinje, as we didn’t think we had enough time to stop.
If you’re looking for spectacular views, definitely stop at their mountain-viewing platform on Montenegro’s second-highest peak.
We continued over a plateau, though a few tiny villages, and then up another narrow, twisty road into another set of smaller mountains on our way towards Cetinje.
The scenery was gorgeous, full of green grassy fields and rocky mountains. We pulled over several times just to take it all in. It was amazing that merely an hour away from Kotor you can get a completely different look at Montenegro.
Day Trip Part 4: The Royal and Cultural Capital of Cetinje
To reach Cetinje we left the mountains and drove down into a valley. Once we reached the town, we felt like we’d stepped back in time.
Though Cetinje is the historic capital of Montenegro, it’s nothing like Kotor. And that’s exactly what we loved about it.
Looking back, I wish we’d stopped and spent more time looking around but we were worried that traffic and a potentially slow border crossing might make for a very long drive back to Dubrovnik, so we just drove around the downtown and through a few neighborhoods to get a quick overview of the town.
We saw kids playing basketball, families walking on park trails, and people running errands. We kept saying “it feels so different here” and trying to figure out exactly why.
Something about Cetinje reminded me of a city I lived in eastern Germany a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As much as I enjoy beautiful old towns that necessarily cater to tourists, I really love visiting everyday towns and seeing how people live their everyday lives. And after a few days in beautiful but touristy Dubrovnik, I enjoyed seeing something different in Cetinje.
If you’ve got time to explore Cetinje, here are some things to see:
- Ulica Njegoševa (the town’s main street)
- National Museum of Montenegro
- Biljarda palace
- Cetinje Monastery
- Vlach church
- Blue Palace
- Lipa Cave (just outside the city)
Day Trip Part 5: Return to Dubrovnik
Once we left Cetinje, we took the M2 to the E80 and speed towards Budva. This part of the drive wasn’t too exciting but we did have some beautiful glimpses of the Adriatic and even saw paragliders soar over our car.
We took the ferry between Herceg Novi and Tivat instead of driving all the way back to the Bay of Kotor.
While we did encounter heavy traffic between Budva and Tivat, and we had a short wait for the ferry, our fear of a long border crossing was quashed when we quickly crossed back into Croatia.
At dusk, we stopped in Cavtat for a relaxing dinner by the water and made it back to Dubrovnik for one more evening stroll through the old town.
The one downside of our day trip was that after reading so many warnings about long waits to cross the border, we always felt to keep moving so we could cover so much ground. If only we’d have known that the border crossings would be so quick and easy, we would have slowed down and stopped in Perast, visited the observatory in Lovcen National Park, and spent more time in Cetinje or stopped in Budva.
That said, we loved how much we got to see of Montenegro and that we got a taste of the interior in just one day. The whole way back to Dubrovnik we brainstormed longer trips through the beautiful country. We can’t wait to go back!
- Get an early start, especially in peak season or if you want to stop in several locations.
- Hike at least some of the trails above the wall in Kotor for amazing views of the old town and bay.
- Bring something to cover your knees and shoulders in case there’s a dress code at any of the churches you want to visit. (I saw signs indicating a dress code but it was unclear how strictly it was enforced.)
- Bring Euros or stop at an ATM upon arriving in Montenegro.
- Don’t forget your passport!
- While you can do the entire drive in one day, if you’ve got two or even three days, that’s even better. You’ll then be able to spend time in both Perast and Kotor, visit Lovcen National Park, and explore Cetinje, and check out Budva.
- If you’re just planning a trip to Kotor and don’t have time to drive all the way to Cetinje, you can easily drive up the 25th switchback, take in the view, and return to Kotor in about an hour.
About Cate: Cate is a former expat turned part-time nomad on a quest to find the best desserts and sweet treats around the world. Join her delicious adventure at the International Desserts Blog.
Main Photo: Pixabay